Sunday, August 26, 2012

Red Sox Reshape Roster

Nearly five months into one of the most dysfunctional, frustrating and turbulent seasons in recent Red Sox memory, the organization is going in a new direction. Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford three of the team's biggest stars and most expensive players, are gone, taking a third of the team's 173 million dollar payroll with them. The overpaid trio was shipped out of Boston yesterday, jettisoned to the Los Angeles Dodgers. They, along with Nick Punto and eleven million dollars, netted five players (James Loney, prospects Ivan De Jesus Jr. and Alan Webster, plus two players to be named later--rumored to be Rubby De La Rosa and Jerry Sands) along with some much needed financial relief. In one fell swoop, Boston's front office pulled off the biggest firesale the Old Towne Team has seen since Harry Frazee dismantled his deadball era dynasty 90 years ago.

But with the team sputtering--seven games below .500, nine and a half games out of the second wild card and sporting a worse record than the Seattle freaking Mariners--it was evident that some sort of sweeping change was necessary to get them back on track. For the third year in a row, Boston will miss the playoffs, something that hasn't happened since 2000-2002 ( gives them a 0.6 percent chance of reaching the postseason, and even those odds seem too generous). The team is headed towards its first losing season since 1997. They've gone 67-87 since last September 1st. It's hard to believe that at the same time a year ago, the "best team ever" was gunning for 100 wins and a World Series title.

But the Red Sox are expected to contend every year, so obviously this level of mediocrity is unacceptable. Boston, a city that cherishes baseball as much as it loves clam chowder and the legend of Paul Revere, will not tolerate losing seasons as long as it continues to pay the most expensive ticket prices in the sport. Red Sox Nation is impatient (and has every right to be after waiting 86 years between World Series) I give all the credit in the world to Boston GM Ben Cherington for getting creative and orchestrating such a groundbreaking trade to change the face of the franchise.  He deserves a pat on the back for trying to retool the team on the fly.  He could have easily blamed this lost season on a crippling combination of slumps and injuries, sat on his hands for the rest of the summer and taken his chances with the same team next year, perhaps with a new field manager in tow. Instead, he recognized the team was going nowhere because Theo Epstein's spending sprees tied up much of his financial resources. The bloated payroll, much of it dedicated to injured/ineffective players such as Beckett, Crawford, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, was working against them. It choked Cherington, limiting him to making minor moves and preventing him from pursuing players and deals that could actually make an impact (last winter he was unable to re-sign Jonathan Papelbon or court free agents such as Jose Reyes, C.J. Wilson, and Mark Buehrle). So he took a cue from the Philadelphia Phillies, who were mired in the exact same situation as the Red Sox--massive payroll, devastated by injuries, treading water.  After re-signing Cole Hamels they unloaded Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino at the trade deadline.  Four weeks later, Boston followed suit.

By all accounts this blockbuster trade is a great move for the Red Sox and a big win for Cherington, who hasn't been able to do anything right since stepping in for Theo Epstein last October. After all, his recent track record is littered with duds; he hired Bobby Valentine, traded Josh Reddick for Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney, dealt Jed Lowrie for Mark Melancon, sent Marco Scutaro to Colorado, swapped Kevin Youkilis for a couple of nobodies, and stood pat the trade deadline instead of shaking things up when Boston still had a chance to make the playoffs. Cherington's moves only spilled gasoline into a raging inferno, adding to the team's myriad problems instead of solving them. But he just gave himself and his team a clean slate, and if this move works out for him, we might remember him as the man who cleaned up Theo Epstein's expensive mess with one big broom. In a way, this move feels like a much larger version of his predecessor's pivotal Nomar Garciaparra trade in 2004, a bold midseason deal that dumped an unhappy, underperforming star player to the NL for fifty cents on the dollar but ultimately worked because it greatly improved clubhouse chemistry and addressed the team's needs. In the end, the degree to which this deal suceeds depends on who Cherington is able to acquire with all the payroll he just freed up.

And that's why I support the move; because it will save the team more than $260 million in player salaries (not including Dice-K, who's coming off the books in a few months as well) over the next five years. After that kind of salary dump, you'd think the team had changed its name to the "Boston Mets." But with a much more flexible payroll, Cherington will have sufficient funds to re-sign David Ortiz and Cody Ross, potentially woo Jacoby Ellsbury away from free agency (an unlikely scenario considering Scott Boras represents him, but at least the Sox could lay down an appetizing offer and then try to trade him if he's not interested). He can go after starting pitchers like Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster and James Shields, or perhaps try to land a Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher, B.J. Upton, Michael Bourn or Shane Victorino. Cherington has stressed the need to be disciplined and smart about how he will allocate his new spending money, indicating that he won't get carried away with reckless splurging as Epstein did during the latter half of his tenure (i.e. throwing money at free agents just for the sake of spending money/making a splash). In a nutshell, he intends to spend his allowance wisely, an approach that should prevent this sort of thing from happening again in the near future.

And it's not like the Red Sox are blowing up their team Florida Marlins style. Much has been made about how the trade is like pressing a reset button, but that implies the team is starting over from starting over from scratch like the Houston Astros. In reality, they still have a great core of Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, Will Middlebrooks, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, and Daniel Bard, all of whom are in their primes. With a restocked farm system and the right moves to complement this nucleus, the Red Sox could contend as soon as next year. No need to undergo a full blown rebuilding process when the roster still has plenty of big league talent to build around. With some more starting pitching depth and another outfield bat, they're going to be a dangerous team in 2013.

Still, I hate to lose a hitter of Gonzalez's caliber, especially since offense is at such a premium these days. He was worth the investment. But at the same time, I realize he had to be sacrificed in order to get LA to take Beckett and Crawford off our hands. Gonzo was a perfect fit for Fenway with his gap-to-gap hitting style and ability to take advantage of the Green Monster with his opposite field power. A-Gone had the potential to put together a Hall of Fame career as the team's best everyday first baseman since Mo Vaughn. He's a class act, a true professional who plays hard, quietly goes about his business and keeps his mouth shut.  Lord knows the Red Sox could use more players like him. It was a joy watching him hit everyday, and the Sox are going to miss his presence in the middle of their order. Luckily I was fortunate enough to see his last game with Boston in person, even though he ended his Red Sox career (and that game) by whiffing on three consecutive pitches with the tying run on base.

Even though I'm not a big fan of trading proven big league talent for prospects, I think the Sox got a pretty promising package in return:

James Loney
Once a top prospect and first round draft pick who batted a robust .331/.387/.538 as a 23 year-old rookie in 2007, Loney hasn't come close to matching those numbers in any of the five seasons since. The power he displayed never developed, either, as he's failed to swat more than thirteen homers in any subsequent season. Given the promise he displayed early on, his regression into an average player at best can be regarded as hugely disappointing. He's 28, in the prime of his career, and instead he's having the worst season of his career, batting just .254/.302/.344 with only four home runs and 33 RBI. That kind of production suggests he's a glove first shortstop, when in reality he's splitting time at first with Juan Rivera. Loney will be a free agent this winter, and unless he regroups over the next six weeks I doubt he'll stay in Boston beyond that. Fenway could help revitalize his career, but he looks so lost at the plate that it doesn't matter where he hits.

Jerry Sands
The slugging 24 year-old first baseman has posted monster numbers (.566 SLG, .943 OPS) in the minor leagues but that success hasn't followed him into the Show, where he's batted just .244/.325/.376 with four home runs in 70 career games. He's not Adrian Gonzalez and probably never will be, but has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone at first base for years to come. The 6'4", 225 pound righthanded power hitter has the same build as Ryan Lavarnaway and should enjoy taking aim at the Green Monster.

Ivan De Jesus Jr.
Not sure what the Sox plan on doing with a light-hitting second baseman, given that they already have one of the game's top keystones in Dustin Pedroia. They could hold on to him in case Pedroia gets hurt, but he probably has more value as trade bait.

Alan Webster
A highly regarded sinkerball pitcher, the 22 year-old has stalled out in AA and will likely need another year or two of seasoning before he's ready for the big leagues. He is the only player in the deal without any MLB experience.

Rubby De La Rosa
The 23 year-old pitching prospect looks fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, as his mid-90s velocity has returned. Has dominant stuff, but needs to harness his command in order to become an effective starting pitcher at the big league level.

As for the Dodgers, it's been a busy summer for them and their GM NEd Coletti, who added some punch to a top-heavy lineup by trading for Victorino and Hanley Ramirez prior to the July 31st deadline. Gonzalez gives them another offensive weapon, as will Crawford when he returns, and Beckett bolsters the starting rotation. Now that the dust has settled, you could make the case that the Dodgers' roster now features the best player (2011 NL MVP runner-up Matt Kemp), first baseman(Gonzalez, as long as Joey Votto is out), shortstop (Ramirez), starting pitcher (2011 NL Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw) and closer (Kenley Jansen) in baseball.

Here are their four newest additions:

Josh Beckett
Nobody needed a change of scenery more than Beckett, presently the most hated athlete wearing a Boston uniform. His attitude, arrogance and abysmal performance, along with unhealthy dietary habits and leisurely rounds of golf, caused the city to sour on him. He had to go. His behavior over the past year has erased any memory of his postseason dominance during the team's 2007 World Series championship run, which is really too bad. The 2007 ALCS MVP could have had a Luis Tiant/Curt Schilling type of legacy here as the October warrior who always saved his best for the games that mattered the most. Instead, his legacy is drinking beer and eating fried chicked with Jon Lester and John Lackey while the Red Sox folded. He squandered any chance he had at redemption by submitting one of his worst seasons to date and hasn't shown any signs of turning it around with just one win in his previous thirteen starts. The 32 year-old's velocity is down and he could be entering the decline phase of his career. Even so, he should show marked improvement against weaker NL competition (hey, I mean if A.J. Burnett can pitch like a Cy Young candidate...). His timing couldn't be better for the Dodgers, since Chad Billingsley was just placed on the disabled list yesterday with inflammation in his right elbow. Beckett's nightmare season (5-11, 5.23 ERA) is far from over, but with a strong finish to the year--perhaps capped by some vintage Beckett postseason performances--he can salvage something positive to build on for the next two years of his contract. He makes his Dodger debut tomorrow against the Rockies at Coors Field. Good luck with that.

Carl Crawford
With Crawford joining All-Stars Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, all three of whom are signed through 2017, the Dodgers now feature the best outfield in baseball for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately Crawford is done for the year after going under the knife (Tommy John surgery) earlier in the week, and thus cannot contribute to the Dodgers' stretch run as they try to nudge past the now Melky Cabrera-less San Francisco Giants. His brief stint in Beantown was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster; he missed more games (163) than he played (161) and was terrible when he showed up, batting a woeful .260/.292/.419 and providing 0.3 bWAR. You got the sense that Crawford was never really comfortable here, that he was too thin-skinned to handle the claustrophobic atmosphere of the fishbowl that is Boston sports. Throw in the added pressure to live up to his gargantuan seven year, $142 million deal and it's not too hard to see why he didn't suceed with the Bosox. It's also important to remember that Crawford didn't want to play for Boston in the first place; the other LA team topped his list of preferred destinations when he hit the free agent market two years ago, but the Red Sox offered more money and the Halos wound up absorbing an even worse contract by trading for Vernon Wells (a lose-lose if I've ever seen one). Needless to say, he should be much happier in the city of Angels, a more laid back environment--like Tampa Bay--that gives him the opportunity to start from scratch whenever he returns next season. I think he'll make the most of it; his style is tailor-made for the National League, and his speed will be on full display in the spacious ballparks of the NL West. Presumably Mattingly will bat him at the top of the order again (after hitting seventh for much of his tenure in Boston), where he can set the table for Kemp, Gonzo, Ethier and HanRam. I'm betting he has several productive years in front of him because he still has all the physical tools. I've said it before and I'll say it again; if he stays healthy, he's going to put up big numbers.

Adrian Gonzalez
A massive upgrade over Loney. The native Californian leaves the friendly confines of Fenway Park and returns to the NL West, where he established himself as one of the game's top hitters with the San Diego Padres by averaging 32 home runs, 100 RBI and a 141 OPS+ from 2006-'10 despite calling PetCo Park home. Since then shoulder problems have diminished his home run pop somewhat, but he's still one of the best pure hitters in the game. A-Gone is in the midst of a torrid second half, as he's batted .333 with ten dingers and 44 RBI in 38 games since the All-Star Break. It looks like his power has returned, so expect him to keep raking while Don Mattingly installs him as the new cleanup hitter.  Perhaps as a harbinger of good things to come, Gonzalez belted a three-run homer in his first at-bat with the Dodgers.

Nick Punto
A solid bench guy to have because he's so versatile, a utilityman with a solid glove who can be plugged in at second, third or short. The California native can't hit worth a lick, but has value as a defensive replacement or a pinch runner in the late innings. As far as throw-ins go, you could do worse. With the way players are getting injured these days, bench depth is becoming more important than ever before.

In the wake of their disastrous 2011 season marred by financial turmoil off the field, the new-look Dodgers are all in, willing to do whatever it takes to win. Like Boston, LA hasn't appeared in the postseason since 2009 and is itching to get back. Just two games out of first place in the NL West, they're poised to make a September run that would dethrone the Giants. But that's not going to be easy the way Matt Cain (2.83 ERA), Madison Bumgarner (2.93 ERA) , Ryan Vogelsong (2.90 ERA) and Tim Lincecum (3.10 ERA in the second half) are pitching, backed by Buster Posey's MVP worthy season. The offense suffered a big blow after losing Melky Cabrera for the rest of the season, but they have enough bats to keep scoring runs in his absence. Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval have all picked up the slack, and Hunter Pence is going to snap out of his funk eventually. This divisional race will likely go down to the wire and could be decided by the three game series between the two that marks the season's finish line. Coolstandings gives San Fran a 62.2 percent chance of winning the division, nearly twice as likely to capture the flag as Los Angeles (31.7 percent). In the end, San Francisco's formidable starting rotation will probably be too much to overcome, so the Dodgers may have to settle for one of the wild cards. They're neck and neck with the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals for the second one, just a half game back. The Redbirds have a loaded lineup (Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Rafael Furcal, David Freese), too, but I'm not convinced their pitching will hold up in September.  Lance Lynn, Kyle Lohse, and Jake Westbrook have overachieved lately and could be due for some regression.

I have to believe the Dodgers will find a way to make the playoffs. They're too talented not to, but a lot of it hinges on Beckett and Ted Lilly stablizing the rotation by pitching well down the stretch. Coletti's wheeling and dealing has assembled a veritable juggernaut. He's put the pieces in place, and if they play the way they're supposed to, this team is going to be tough to beat.

Then again, you could have said the same thing about the Red Sox not too long ago.

No comments:

Post a Comment